#whitefeather diaries

Taking sides against war

Tuesday 19 August 2014

William Temple told John Hoare that he could not be neutral while the country was at war. However, many anti-war campaigners did not see themselves as neutral. Rather, they said that they were acting in solidarity with opponents of the war in other countries, including Germany. This view was particularly common among socialists and anarchists.

The International Socialist Bureau consisted of delegates from all over Europe, as well as a few from elsewhere. Meeting in Belgium on the eve of war, they turned down a proposal from British socialist politician Keir Hardie to call for an international general strike if war broke out. Nonetheless, they voted against war, declaring that:

The Bureau considers it an obligation for the workers of all nations concerned not only to continue but even to strengthen their demonstrations against war in favour of peace and a settlement of the Austrian-Serbian conflict by arbitration.

The German and French workers will bring to bear on their governments the most vigorous pressure in order that Germany may secure in Austria a moderating action, and in order that France may obtain from Russia an undertaking that she will not engage in conflict. On their side, the workers of Great Britain and Italy shall sustain these efforts with all the power in their command.

The hope of international left-wing resistance to war faded once leading socialists in Germany, Britain and France gave their backing to the war. But many continued to work against it. A few months later, a group of anarchists issued an 'International Anarchist Manifesto on the War'. This is an extract, in which the writers mock the claims made by all governments involved in the war that they were fighting to save civilisation.

Civilisation? So who represents that just now?

Is it the German state, with its so powerful and weighty militarism, that has stifled every leaning of revolt? Is it the Russian state whose sole means of persuasion are the club, the gibbet and Siberia? Is it the French state, with its Biribi and bloody conquests in Tonkin, Madagascar, Morocco and its forced recruits of black troops? The France that year on year detains in its prisons comrades whose only crime is that of having written and spoken against war? Is it Britain, which exploits, divides, starves and oppresses the peoples of its vast colonial empire?

No, none of the belligerents is entitled to invoke civilisation, just as none have the right to claim that they are a state of legitimate defence.

The above extracts are quoted in Not Our War: Writings against the first world war, edited by A.W. Zurbrugg (Merlin Press, 2014).

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